Beneath dark clouds, an old man pushed a grocery cart on Reynolds Avenue past The Empowerment Center. Despite its uplifting name, the building looked as bleak as the overcast sky.
The place of worship was shuttered. Word was it had been a hospital at one time. There was even talk of a crematorium on the back side, where a chimney rose. An open door led to rooms littered with debris.
A sunnier future is in store, though, because a partnership that includes movie actor Bill Murray has invested in the rundown property.
Yarrum Properties - Murray spelled backward - purchased the 10,000-square-foot brick structure for $250,000 along with a neighboring 3,300 square-foot building that cost $162,000, said Ben Danosky, an owner of the company.
"He (Murray) liked the area and it made sense," Danosky said.
Signs of new life
The Chicora-Cherokee neighborhood where the properties are located has long been considered one of North Charleston's most crime and drug-ridden communities. It has one of the highest child poverty rates in South Carolina.
But there are signs of new life there such as a recently-dedicated 2,300-square-foot playground adjacent to the Chicora Place Community Garden, where residents volunteer time and grow fresh produce and vegetables.
However, the garden and play area are just one block from the former Navy base where a huge railyard is planned.
Activists have expressed concern about air and water pollution and a recent march on Reynolds Avenue protested the loss of Sterett Hall, a community recreation center that would be torn down to make way for the railyard.
Restoring the past
The efforts of the real estate redevelopment partnership of Murray, fellow Charleston RiverDogs co-owner Mike Veeck and Danosky reflect a growing presence of public, private and nonprofit organizations working to bring new vitality to Reynolds Avenue and Chicora-Cherokee.
The scarred street and neighborhood bustled during the hey-day of the Naval Shipyard, which was shut down in the mid-90s when Congress sought to scale back the military budget by closing bases.
Today, storefront churches line the street as it cuts through Chicora-Cherokee between Rivers and Spruill avenues. The neighborhood landscape includes an empty school, boarded-up homes and shuttered businesses. Some 2,789 residents call the area home. Of those, 2,429 are African-American and the rest are white. Up to 90 percent of them live on a low-to-moderate income, according to Census figures provided by the city.
"It's really about restoring what was here, restoring the history and the pride," said Stacy Danosky, Yarrum marketing director who is married to Ben Danosky.
Despite the checkered past of Reynolds Avenue, Murray saw opportunity when he walked the street a few weeks before buying the properties in April.
Residents who recognized him saw a chance for a better community.
"People came up to him and said, 'This was a great area and we would love some help,'" Danosky said.
Yarrum will set up shop on the street in the smaller building it purchased. The plan for The Empowerment Center is first-floor retail with apartments on the second floor, he said.
Other places on the avenue, such as the fire station, are also empty. Where some might see only decay, though, the partners saw potential.
"The buildings have the makings of a little downtown," Danosky said.
But it's not just about real estate. Encouraging proper nutrition is part of the Yarrum vision. Chicora-Cherokee is a "food barren" area that could benefit from a market where fresh produce is offered, he said.
Long term, Yarrum could invest millions in the neighborhood, he said.
The Rev. Bill Stanfield, a former North Charleston Citizen of the Year, lives and works in Chicora-Cherokee with his wife, Evelyn Oliveira. Stanfield started Metanoia Community Development Corp., which recently opened a new youth entrepreneurship center in a once-vacant 5,000 square-foot building that had been sheltering drug dealers and other illegal activity on Reynolds Avenue.
Stanfield is an associate minister at St. Matthew Baptist Church, which houses Metanoia across the street from The Empowerment Center.
He plans to meet with Ben Danosky to discuss the Yarrum projects. "We recognize that the success of the community is going to depend on positive investment," he said.
Hospital was catalyst
Chicora-Cherokee is getting a boost from another investment group that is offering space in the old Naval Hospital near Reynolds.
Redevelopment of the vacant building is envisioned as a catalyst to revive the fortunes of the neighborhood, North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey has said.
The new owners of the hospital, Chicora Gardens Holdings LLC, purchased it from the City of North Charleston. About 25 percent of 400,000 square feet of usable space in the 10-story structure has been leased. The first tenants beginning next year will be Charleston County services, including primary offices of the health department, substance abuse services and the coroner. Fetter Health Care Network will also be a tenant.
Members of Chicora Gardens Holdings LLC include Utah developer Douglas Durbano and New York developer Donald Trump Jr., Summey has said.
A good neighborhood
Danosky was Charleston RiverDogs director of operations from 2006-2007. His baseball job opened a door to the Yarrum partnership with Murray and Veeck.
In Charleston, Yarrum residential restorations include properties on the East Side as well as Wagener Terrace and Hampton Park. In addition to Reynolds Avenue, the company is also at work in the Park Circle area of North Charleston.
City of North Charleston spokesman Ryan Johnson said that Reynolds Avenue is prime for a comeback and the next natural area of redevelopment in the south end of the city.
"It was once a vibrant business corridor, and it can be that again. We are already seeing new life brought to the street," he said.
At Smitty's Super Seven Barber Shop, owner Anthony Smith gave a customer a haircut and welcomed news of the Yarrum plan that would repurpose the empty Empowerment Center across the street.
"I think it's a good neighborhood to invest in. It's got its problems like any neighborhood but we're hanging in there," he said.
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